LOS ANGELES – Former California U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes’ resignation to lead Donald Trump’s media company has left his one-time constituents with an odd special election: Voters will select someone to complete the remaining months of his term in a district that will disappear next year.
The election next month in the Republican-leaning 22nd District in the state's Central Valley is largely an afterthought as national Republicans and Democrats focus on November elections that will determine control of Congress in 2023.
About a half-dozen of the key House races are in California. Such contests are a rarity in the liberal-minded state, where Democrats hold every statewide office, dominate in the Legislature and have a 42-10 advantage in the congressional delegation.
Among the marquee contests: Republican Rep. Mike Garcia is defending the seat he won by a few hundred votes in a Democratic-tilting district north of Los Angeles; Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a star of the party's progressive wing, is running in a new coastal district in Orange County; and Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, a Korean immigrant, is looking to win a second term in another Orange County district with a slight Democratic edge that includes the nation's largest Vietnamese American community.
Nationally, Democrats face obstacles to retaining control of the House and Senate. The party in the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections. Polls show many Americans are unhappy with the direction of the country. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have been sagging, and there’s friction between the party’s progressive and establishment wings.
The 48-year-old Nunes was comfortably reelected in 2020 and wasn't widely seen as someone likely to leave office before the next election. But the Trump loyalist resigned in December to join the Trump Media & Technology Group. The company hopes its social media platform will rival competitors like Twitter and Facebook, which blocked the former president’s accounts after the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
There are a half-dozen candidates running to replace Nunes. Early voting has started for the race that concludes April 5. If no candidate gets a majority, a runoff between the top two finishers will coincide with the statewide primary election June 7.
The candidates face the challenge of attracting attention at a time when many voters have tuned out the nation's corrosive politics while others could be suffering election fatigue after last year’s failed recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic are dominating headlines.
A runoff could prove even more politically tricky, after the state reordered district boundaries to account for population shifts in the once-a-decade census that saw California lose a congressional seat for the first time.
The existing Nunes district will be broken up and merged into new seats. That means it's possible a candidate could end up appearing twice on the June ballot — once in a runoff for the vacant Nunes seat and a second time in a new House district for the term that starts in 2023.
Republican candidate Michael Maher is on the ballot for the vacant seat and plans to run in the primary for a full term in a new district, the 21st, which encompasses a slab of Nunes’ old territory.
The political environment is unsteady: The Navy veteran and former FBI special agent says some of the voters he’s encountered did not know Nunes resigned. And if Maher ends up in a runoff, he wonders if asking people to vote for him twice might leave some suspicious of shenanigans.
“It is quite quirky, and it’s problematic,” he said.
Maher, a first-time candidate, is a lifelong Republican but he sees himself in the mold of former Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was viewed as a maverick willing to work across party lines.
Winning the special election could be a springboard to November in a new district, helping build name recognition and experience in Congress, even in a truncated term lasting only to the end of the year.
GOP hopeful Elizabeth Heng, who lost a run for Congress in a neighboring district in 2018 and briefly ran for U.S. Senate, hopes a win in the Nunes district would give her an edge for a full term in the new 13th District, which has a Democratic tilt but includes many voters who saw her name on the ballot four years ago.
She said similar issues — including water for orchards and farms, rising gas and food prices, impatience with long-running pandemic mandates and the economy — cut across the Central Valley, sometimes called the nation's salad bowl because of its vast agricultural production.
“When you go to the grocery store and milk and beef and chicken and vegetables cost so much right now, people are so frustrated,” said Heng, 37, a tech executive and former staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Two other Republicans are on the ballot: former Navy combat pilot Matt Stoll and former legislator Connie Conway, both small-business owners. Democrats on the ballot are Eric Garcia, a Marine and Iraq War veteran, and Lourin Hubbard, a manager for the state Department of Water Resources.
Both Democrats support universal health care and immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for people who entered the U.S. illegally, while the Republicans all share similar conservative policy stands, their websites said.